Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar: Film Review

At one point during the movie Avatar, I tried to brush away a fly but then realized that it was on the movie screen. This is what 3D graphics can do, and, I must say, the result is quite impressive. So are the shots of the flora and fauna of Pandora, the setting of James Cameron's new space-adventure/Cooperian-romance movie set sometime in the twenty-second century. One can always expect Cameron to outdo himself with all technical dimensions (pun intended) of the work; if only he had someone else to write his screenplays.

Anyone who follows popular culture may have recognized that Avatar has gotten outstanding reviews from most major publications: Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker. But, in what Ross Douthat has referred to as a revolt of the fan-boys and nerds, there has been some blow-back on the internet. This is because, in spite of the film's technical depth, its characters and themes are as shallow as a water drop on oak.

The protagonist is a perfect example of this shallowness: His name is Jake Scully (given the film's ardent pantheism, something like Emerson Spinoza might have been more appropriate) and, apparently, he is a former marine. We don't know much about his service (or even if he was good at it), but the lifestyle appears to die harder than his legs do--in his human body, he's confined to a wheelchair (and, yes, if you're wondering, his skinny legs look more convincing than anything else in the movie). The only back story that Cameron provides is that Scully had a scientist brother who died at some point and that, at one point or another, he was in Venezuela (do I detect a Stone-ism here?)

Perhaps Cameron would object that he does not too overly-humanize the, well, human characters because they represent the assumed Military Industrial Complex of the Robber Barons, Corp. The problem is that when he introduces the indigenous tribe, they aren't really much more distinctive. Scully's attraction to them is predictable (after all, this movie was made after Dances with Wolves and A Man Called Horse) but also incomprehensible, given that there is nothing intriguing--or even attractive--about them. Their platitudinous speech is ridden with cliches one might expect from any Hollywood picture. However, they are unrealistic on a deeper level than their silly dialogue and cat ears would suggest. (They also have a tail, but that's not the strangest thing.)

What is least believable about the tribe is the love that all of them have for nature; this seems much more reflective of the tastes of the bourgeoisie bohemian producer of this piece than any indigenous tribe that has existed in any place in history. Love of nature is a product of urbanization; for those who depend on nature and constantly struggle against its darker side for survival, fear is the default position (and rightly so); it is true that nature yields plentifully, but it does not do so for humanity. To conceptualize of nature--as the Na'vi tribe in the movie does--as a maternal goddess is simply absurd.

To say that nature is cruel is, as Stephen J. Gould has pointed out, somewhat quaint, given that it occupies an entirely different wavelength of moral order; nature is neither cruel nor kind, but comfortably amoral and diverse (though, as Darwin argued in the Origins of the Species, it tends to be fairly intolerant of diversity within species--perhaps the reason why all of Cameron's Na'vi look pretty much the same.) Nature being what it is, humanity is almost a perfect corollary to it for, unlike nature, men progress by devolution rather evolution: the sword is made by the man who can't lift a stone, the bow by a man who can't wield a sword, the rifle by a man who can't pull a bow string and the nuclear weapon by the man who can't shoot straight. Nature is beautiful, as long as it is contained within the consciousness but the humanity which Cameron purges by the end of the film provide, by merit of being fully human, the only compass by which anyone's actions in the film could be gauged as moral or immoral.

Naturally, the most lasting feature of the film will not be these themes but rather the new technology that went into its production and created a fly so real that (as I noted at the beginning of this essay) I tried to brush it away. What can be said for this? Mainstream critics have already said it all so I will only add that I hope that filmmakers of equal technical talent as that of James Cameron and greater storytelling ability will, like that carrion fly I waved at, tear off some slice of inspiration from this production which may be tasty but also as dead as the carcasses which ultimately turn to nothing but a naked skull and rib cage.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of Communitarians and Christians

Patrick Deneen at Georgetown University has a piece arguing that George Bailey (of It's a Wonderful Life fame) is not so heroic after all; that he is actually the destroyer of Bedford Falls. Here's a revealing highlight:

"Attempting to comprehend what has happened, and refusing to believe Clarence’s explanations, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. Martini, in the first reality, is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, of course the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.” George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death."

You can find the rest on Front Porch Republic if you like. My response to this was "Let the dead bury the dead". Do you agree? Sub-question: Is Prof. Deneen's communitarian-ism reconcilable with Christianity, which is a fundamentally cosmopolitan religion?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On Immortality and Selfishness

Here's an interesting paradox: Today, there exist several institutions not unlike the Immortality Institute; the purpose of these organizations is to reverse aging and, by doing so, gain the benefits of religion without any of the devotion. The curious thing is this: if everyone on the planet were to live 1000+ years, how would we ever make room (quite literally) for such things as procreation? Are we immortals to halt population growth all together? No doubt the CEO of the Immortality Institute would answer in the affirmative, at least until we have developed the necessary technologies to allow us to colonize other planets (that is, if living in a five-hundred-year-old body doesn't sterilize all of us.) And leaving aside this problem, other issues emerge: putting the breaks on aging won't save those in developing countries from epidemics or those of us in developed countries from car accidents. The effect that it would have--it seems to me--is to make us much more paranoid about health, work, diet, etc. ("Artificial sweetener can cause cancer, ya know.") My point is, much as we dislike mortality, shedding it will not create utopia; humans--or at least humans who live beneath the floor of heaven--may be selfish, but not nearly as selfish as they would be were they (tentatively) immortal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The President's New Afghanistan Policy

I finally got around to watching at least part of the speech at West Point in which President Obama announced his new Afghanistan policy. I had already, to some degree, formed an opinion before watching it, so I'll just lay out my thoughts on the matter: Do I support his Afghanistan policy? Yes. I don't find the timeline to be particularly tasteful (considering that Al Qaeda and the Taliban could lie low until the United States begins to withdraw), but President Obama knew that a surge in Afghanistan of any sort would be controversial with his party's far-left wing. He did it anyway. I think that's something that we can all admire. This doesn't mean that I have any intension of becoming an Obama supporter; I still disagree with him on 90% of the major issues, and, even though the surge plan is the most courageous decision, I can only pray that it is also the best one. That being said, this might make for an interesting chapter should anyone ever decide to write Profiles in Courage 2.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lou Dobbs for President?

According to the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 25th) Lou Dobbs is considering a run for the White House. Has he NO mercy?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Gaseousness of H. Bloom

From Harold Bloom's review of Peter Aykroyd's new rendering of the Canterbury Tales:

Shakespeare's greatest contemporary, the epic poet Edmund Spenser, derived directly from Chaucer, whom he praised as the "well of English undefiled." That prompted the 18th-century poet-critic John Dryden to term Chaucer "a perpetual fountain of good sense.

Question: Is it possible to do more pretentious name-dropping in such a short space?

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the Pleasures of Civic Irresponsibility

Thank God I'm in the 28th--and not the 23rd Congressional District of New York; otherwise, I might feel obligated to get out and vote tomorrow.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Celebrity Editorials

Thought experiment: When the nation's two leading newspapers publish op-ed columns by Bono (The New York Times) and Rush Limbaugh (The Wall Street Journal) in the same weekend, what does it say about the well-being of print media that it is soliciting celebrities for their "insightfulness". (In case you are wondering, I have read both columns; neither of them was the worst that I had read in either paper--for the Times that prize would go to most anything by Paul Krugman or Frank Rich and for the Journal it would go to Sarah Palin's column last month on the health-care debate--but was the fact that both columns were "not terrible" the reason why they were printed?)

Friday, October 9, 2009

On the Ridiculousness of Obama's Peace Prize

Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is remarkable: Remarkable because the Nobel Prize Committee has just hit a new low. I don't know when it began (though I suspect that it was when Jimmy Carter won the award earlier in the decade) but the Nobel Peace Prize has simply become a passive aggressive cleaver with which the Parliament of Sweden comments on American foreign policy. If nothing else, I suppose, it demonstrates that America still has a huge impact on the world. The Nobel Prize Committee is apparently so concerned that they have awarded the prize to a president in advance, based on what he has said he will do, rather than what he has done.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does a Dream Constitute a Whole, or Partial, Experience?

I should preface this post by noting that one of my pet-peeves is when someone relates his or her dream to me. There is a reason why, when God created us, He did not put a television screen floating ethereal above our heads so that people could watch what we thought: Because the head is private space, and it shouldn't be leased to strangers on a whim. I have no desire to step inside someone else's head, and I don't want anyone else to take me there. After having said that, I'll now say that I am discussing dreams in this post, and I have decided to use two of mine as case studies. So, if you are at all like me, dear reader, then please, read no further. Also, for Freudians or any others who are like to see a sub-conscious symbol at any turn, I have no interest in these subjects and my readers--if there are any--probably do not have an interest in these topics either; please comment elsewhere. What interests me is how the dream applies to our conscious modes of experience, not how it reflects subconscious desires (if these do, indeed, exist--I am no expert.)

Now all of that is cleared up, so let me begin by restating the question which is the title of this post: Does a dream consistute a whole, or partial, experience? (And to this let me add the sub-question of whether or not this experience is applicable to the real world.) I cannot address this topic myself, as my only expertise is as a dreamer myself.

Most dreams that I have had in the past have occurred more like montages and most I have not recalled in the morning (though I seem to have wakened with the sense that I had sensed something during the past night). This was not so with a dream that I had (or, should I say, experienced?) more than a year ago--I do not recollect the date. In this dream, I had a son out of wedlock. I realize that this would be seriously unethical in the world in which I actually live, but in the microverse of the dream, this issue was hardly raised. It was a dream which inhabited the bare facts rather than the contemplative ideals; the only reason that I mention the birth was out of wedlock was because it drives home the unexpectedness of the experience.

In the dream, I remember the white tile of the hospital, who was in the room and why, even the features of the muling infant. And I also remember that either I--or the alternative persona who I was inhabiting in the dream--was at first upset with the inconvenience of the responsibility but, when confronted with the reality of fatherhood for the first time, underwent what could only be called a rebirth through this birth; a certian moment of epiphany in which I realized that my identity would now be redefined and, though I had little experience in this new life, i knew from the alienated recollection of the past that this would be the happiest moment that I would ever have.

Since I could obviously not replicate this dream in the real world without serious ethical hazard, the only way to discover whether this constitutes a genuine experience (even though artificially induced) is to ask the vast web of blog-readers who are fathers whether they remember this sort of experience when their first child was born. In other words, since it happened in an alternate reality--one of which the mind alone is king--is this experience false, or was the sensational reaction genuine?

The other dream I mean to pose more as a thought experiment: I recollect taking a taxi home from my former place of work (The University Inn) in the middle of winter. The taxi is crammed with seven different people so I am forced to sit on the floor with no seatbelt (something which could not happen in reality, as it would be against safety regulations). A blizzard has broken out. Then, just twenty paces from where I am to step out of the vehicle, the taxi skids. I view the process by which the driver loses control through the backwindshield; I see the car tracks like a straight line in the snow become jagged and then curved as the taxi careens into the creek on the other side of the road. I first I do not believe that this could be a reality; people die in accidents all the time, but I never thought that I could be involved in an accident; then, through the backwindshield, I see the black tree branches pass against the white sky and I tbink, finally, some peace! and I close my eyes (an act which wakes me).

Is this how I would react were I confronted by this experience in actuality? I wonder. And i hope that you enjoy wondering about it also.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Follow-up on the Last Post

I should note that, last night, I left a cordial but critical comment on a column by a certain "Daily Mail" columnist. I took issue with his claim that neoconservatives were "uninterested in greater social and cultural issues". The comments on his site are monitored and, somewhat oddly, I didn't notice that he had published my comment on his blog. I'll just say here, then, that anyone familiar with the politics outlined in Irving Kristol's "Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea" knows neoconservatism began largely as a reaction to the secularized Burkeanism of Michael Oakeshott; it was precisely because the "intellectual" conservatives like Oakeshott and the Rockefeller Republicans were unwilling to confront the great moral questions of the era and because the populist conservatives of the South thought the great moral issue of the era was the protection of segregation that neoconservatives saw the need to find a third way for conservative politics; a third way that could criticize the moral catastrophes of the mid-twentieth century not from the perspective of the Romanticized Last Man of Yesterday or the Utopian New Man of Tomorrow but from the perspective of the informed mind of the present who could judge current crises according to the wisdom of the past while also avoiding its failures. Neoconservatism, once again, made present issues into moral issues.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Neoconservatism: Why It Is Still Valuable Today

The death of Irving Kristol has brought forth a number of pieces on the origins of neoconservatism. This is good; since the beginning of the Iraq War until now, neoconservatism has come to refer to anyone who dared support the Iraq War. (Does this mean that Gordon Brown is a neoconservative, anyone?)

These recent articles will, hopefully, put such legends to rest. It is true that some of those associated with Kristol--not the least of which his son, William--have been among the war's most avid supporters and also that support for robust foreign policy was a key tenant to Kristol's move toward conservatism (though application of this foreign policy is open to debate.) But the central tenent to neoconservatism was always its skepticism of human pretensions, whether these came in the form of Stalin's show trials or Johnson's Great Society.

Because of this skepticism, however, neoconservatism was critical of every ideology, not the least of which some of the ideolgical hacks of the Right (rather than those who, like myself, were content to be conservative rather than Conservatives.) These hacks all had different names and interests: the John Birch Society, Governor George Wallace and the segregationist South, Ross Perot and his protectionist Reform Party.

Neoconservatives on the other hand were willing to take to heart Burke's counsel that the society without the means for reform was without the means for its own preservation. Government could only rule in the present; it could not push the people forward toward a utopian future or pull them backward toward an ephereal past.

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, Kant says, nothing straight has ever been made; this truth was at the core of Irving Kristol's political philosophy, and today, when America has put in the White House a man who promises to create a kingdom "right here on earth," all citizens would do well to view this idealism with the same skepticism as that of Kristol. Humanity may be crooked, but not all that is beautiful is straight.

Monday, September 14, 2009


A follow-up on the previous post: Apparently, the president of Planned Parenthood has issued a statement saying that the murder of Jim Pouillon (they did report his name after all--so I was wrong) was unfortunate, but that there is "much less violence on the pro-choice side than on the pro-life side". Of course, this statement bags the question; if abortion is not murder, then this statement is true, but if abortion is murder, then violence on the pro-choice side is exponentially greater than the twenty-odd murders committed by the pro-life side over the past two decades.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I doubt that the media will ever even report the victim's name:

"Local officials and state police are confirming that a pro-life advocate was shot and killed outside a high school in this Michigan town. The person, who is described as well-known but whose identity has not been released, was shot multiple times while protesting abortion outside Owosso High School.

"Officials say the shooting occurred at 7:30 a.m. local time and most students were inside the school building at the time of the incident.

"State police have also confirmed they apprehended a suspect about 8:15 a.m at the suspect’s home in this small community northeast of Lansing."

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Jesus Camp": Who Are These People (The Ones Who Made This Insipid Schlock, I Mean)?

The documentary "Jesus Camp" self-congratulatorily refers to itself as trying to present an even-handed picture of children and the role of faith in their lives--I'm the producers thought that would sell--but the result is a very shallow bit of drivel as seen through the broad, open vision of cosmopolitanism. I suppose that the people in the film are as much to blame as the documentarians (after all, they volunteered themselves for mockery). But they are constrained to the ethics of journalism as are documentary filmmakers. How anyone thought that they might be able to present an objective portrait of the religious rites of the Religious Right by filming a Pentacostal Bible camp which is believed by many, and with some justification, to be heretical is beyond me. Then again, you won't see the heretical charges pointed out in the film, unless it's from a member of the very safe United Methodist Church. One could just as easily make the City Year kids look like fascists. I wouldn't recommend it, though; that would be equally stupid.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the Passing of Sen. Kennedy

The Wall Street Journal's op-ed section had an interesting take on the career of Edward Kennedy (though it sounded a bit overly critical for an obituary); the Journal noted that Kennedy was a senator of conviction rather than what Hilary Clinton once termed a politician of 'the possible'. Edward Kennedy always was motivated by ideals, even though he was willing to take the long way around to get there (whether it was admitting higher test-score standards in the case of No Child Left Behind or authoring comprehensive immigration reform bills with Sen. John McCain.)

Whether his ideals (which evolved occasoinally and were not always consistent) were correct or not is an entirely different matter. The most important part of his legacy was his ability to fight for them. By this standard, his legacy may prove the most enduring of all of the Kennedy brothers (though he will probably always be the least glamorous). John F. Kennedy was an effective president, but his talents derived more from his willingness to move with the tide as his ability to impose his will upon it. Robert Kennedy--had he lived and been elected to the presidency--probably would have tried to bring more idealism than prudence to the White House, but that was a reality that never materialized.

Edward Kennedy's legacy, if nothing else, should probably be in demonstrating that it is not the politician who governs from the center that moves history, but rather the politician with the charisma to define where the center is. Kennedy may have moved that center in the wrong direction, but, in the broad narrative of history, it probably won't matter. What else can one say but requiscat in pacem.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Note on "Lolita"

The Jungle Cat has recently finished reading "Lolita" for the first time. I hear say--and it is, more or less, stated in Nabokov's afterward--that the novel is actually about an immigrant trying to fit in in another culture and casting aside his natural language--embodied by Annabel--for a misbegotten relationship with the language of his adopted culture--Lolita. An odd way to think of it, but, in some ways, it does actually make sense.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happiness, Satisfaction, Activity and Dissatisfaction

Happiness is a constant; satisfaction is relative. Happiness is a state of being; satisfaction a state of doing. Happiness derives from realization of a criterion of correctness in the relationship between oneself, God and the universe; satisfaction emanates from the exercise of one's total potential or will.

This is a conclusion which I came to today, while trying to find ways to occupy my time in between the moments of bureaucratic business. During the in between time, I cook, read Nabokov, read Scruton, read the Old Testament (and the New Testament, when I come to that) and walk about the campus. (The city of Rochester is really nothing worth walking around from what I have seen of it.)

Anyway, the main point I'm getting at is that, while certain people can never be truly happy (this is not something that they have to work for, in the straightest sense of the word) everyone has to run swiftly to keep apace of dissatisfaction.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Church-Going in Rochester

I worshiped at the single Anglican church in Rochester yesterday. It's located downtown, on Chestnut Street, not far from the bus center; but that doesn't mean it isn't out-of-the-way. It is. I found the edifice in which it was located without too much trouble; the street-view option of Google-maps had helped me the day before. However, the first church I entered in the building--in which a worship service was just beginning--turned out to be an Evangelical Lutheran church. (According to one man with whom I spoke, it is the last one in all of western New York which still offers services in German, though most of the congregants at these services are students who are studying the language.)

I finally found the congregation that I was looking for; it was a small group of about ten people; I was the only young man present. The sermon was on understanding the will of God (mostly preaching out of the book of Thessalonians); it was worth it, though the service itself was a bit high-churchy for my taste. Will I attend the same church next week? Probably. But I don't know if I will keep going to the church after that; I was actually thinking of visiting the Lutheran church that meets up above (even though I have no intention of becoming a Lutheran.)

On a similar front, the monks at the Abbey at Genessee asked me if I had any inclination to become a Trappist myself. I told them that even if I were a Catholic (which I am not) I could never take on the vows of celibacy. Genessee makes a pleasant retreat, though, and, if one did want to spend his entire life attached to a single location, there are worse locations to attach oneself to.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thoughts on Things That Have Come and Gone

Lord willing and the creeks don't rise, I am moving to New York (upstate, that it is) in less than a week. I have been places before: I spent a few weeks in Paris, I've traveled on both coasts of Canada, I've been to conferences in southern California and the Rustbelt, and there was a brief gig as a farmhand and cowboy in rural Virginia. But Moscow, Idaho has been "home" for twenty-two years. Statistically, the chances are that there will not be another locale which I will call "home" for a longer period of time. Most people would call this turning the page on another chapter of their lives, but for me, it is more like turning the page on Book I of my life.

I'm not old. (I'm still in my early twenties.) But that doesn't mean I'm younger than the world that we live in now; I'm actually quite a bit older than it (or at least I have lived long enough to remember when it was not.) This brave new world that I am referring to is the world of the computer, of mass communication, of globalization. I remember a time when I had trouble believing that the Soviet Union could be breaking apart; that America could want any president other than George H. W. Bush; that history was the last victim of itself, consigned to the archives where only those who made a living by reinterpreting it bothered to follow. I remember I time when I could not remember where I was when the World Trade Centers came down.

This world is a new world; or else I am like a man who turned around in Socrates's hypothetical cave and saw what had been all along, though he was unaware of it. (It is not that this is an impossibility; I avoided getting an email address for as long as I could; I was twenty-one when I finally obtained a cellular phone.) In this new world, it has become easier to keep track of people, which is why no one bothers to do it anymore. We have advanced to a point where it has become polite to lie by saying "I'll keep in touch" but perhaps impolite to annul that lie by actually keeping in touch.

But, for all of that, the frontier still beckons. The world can still be remade, but not until it remakes us first. And, if the primary facet of this current world has been trivialization, what will the next era bring I wonder?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Religion Just Keeps Getting More and More Ecumenical

Interesting statistics garnered via wikipedia: In the United Kingdom, approximately 70% of the population identifies as Christian; however, only about 35% of the population believes that a personal God exists. But this may not be as great an accomplishment as that of the Church of Sweden which manages to discuss its general credo on its English website without once mentioning God (even though the web-designer does quote a bishop who mentions the Holy Spirit briefly.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Notes on the Death of Dr. Tiller

Because there has been so much buzz on the death of Dr. Tiller, I thought that I would throw my own two cents into the hat. Not that I have a lot that is new to say, but it is worth reminding whomever your readers are of it, even if your only reader is yourself.

I should begin by noting that I do not find myself feeling particularly sorry of George Tiller, though I am sorry that his family now has to go through the distress of losing him. If the woman's health was at grave risk, then a few of the abortions he performed may have been justifiable, but, all in all, what he did was atrocious and, in a fully civilized and moral society, would have brought down upon him the full weight and discipline of the law.

But therein lies the problem: No society is fully civilized and all find ways to let their small acts of utilitarian immorality find justification through one premise or another. It serves an apparatus of power, but no matter how corrupt the apparatus is, it still holds up the body. Acts like those of the lone gunman who murdered George Tiller are not reprehensible because they are committed against this or that individual, but rather because they are committed against the social apparatus as a whole. An assault on anyone is an assault on everyone.

I have heard some--not pro-lifers but rather libertarians and "progressives" playing DARE--argue that an unjust law is no law at all (and, by implication, that individual citizens should engage in vigilantism where the government fails to do so.) This is completely wrong. A law is a law, unjust or not and, if they play the History card (what about slavery?) then I say just because I would have supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Anti-Secessionist policies does not necessarily mean that I should have been obliged to condone the Nat Turner Rebellion or to stand beside John Brown at Harper's Ferry. Even the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s had the law on their side when it came to brass tax (see Brown v. Board of Education.)

In short, I see no reason why I should not be sorry for Dr. Tiller's passing (if, indeed, he did provide unnecessary late-term abortions) while, at the same time, hoping that Scott Roeder, his murderer, spends the rest of his life in prison or, perhaps, joins the dwindling few on death row.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Initial Reactions to the Ensign + Sanford Thing

With both Ensign and Sanford realizing that their political futures are in shambles, one has to ask, are there any Republicans who are not having an affair now? If so, please stand up. Of course, calling for Sanford to resign might not be the best idea now. His state is not in such good shape so changing governors does not seem like such a good plan (unless he disappears again.) As for Ensign, it would probably be best for everyone if he resigned from the senate. After he so vigorously crusaded for the resignation of President Clinton and Senator Craig, what can one say but "he has no credibility now"?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thoughts on Totalitarianism in the Twenty-First Century

I've been exchanging emails with a friend recently on the subject of government, culture, totalitarianism, etc. Here's the latest thing I added to the mix for anyone who's interested:

I wanted to read "Fahrenheit 451" before responding. I have done so. Bradbury, like Huxley before him, was very prescient in seeing the threat of passive despotism in a society; by passive despotism, I don't mean the type the seeks to create a New Man, but rather a variety of despotism that is created to govern once the New Man has been created. Of course, because this sort of despotism adapts to cultural change rather than forcing the culture to change according to its abstract goals--as in countries like the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China--the illiberalism of the system does not manifest itself to any but the outsiders of the society.

The claim that "we are left with democracy" I think is true, with some qualification, but the most important follow-up question, for me, would be how we are to protect democracy from becoming a tyranny of the mob. This question isn't a new one; nearly two centuries ago, de Tocqueville wrote of how democracy tended toward passive totalitarianism: "In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fe, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and persecutions every day . . . He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth" (244).

This, for me, underlines one of the fundamental flaws of democracy: It trivializes recognition. Dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Natan Sharansky could oppose autocratic regimes, and, in cases like these, their imprisonment confirmed their relevance to the cause of freedom. But what about parents in present-day Germany who are imprisoned for homeschooling their children? What about people like Liinda Gibbons in Canada who are imprisoned for protesting permissive abortion policies? In cases like this, the abuse of power would seem apparent to most classical liberals and conservatives, but the abuse is not inconsistent with the General Will of the nations whose governments perpetrate the action.

To summarize, totalitarianism failed in the West in the twentieth century because partisan elites tried to create a New Man through deeply flawed belief systems (such as communism and Nazism). In the twenty-first century, we may very well see a totalitarianism with all of the opposite characteristics: absent will be the near-religious devotion that either of these two ideologies inspired in its adherents; there need be no talk of revolution, culture or even the New Man because under such a totalitarianism all of these could be assumed. A government does not need to create a New Man if he already exists. The disturbing part, though, is that the success or failure of this sort of totalitarianism is, from what I can tell, indeterminate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Movie Review: Suburbia vs. Artifice

Intellectuals hate suburbia. I have never understood why. Perhaps the suburbs are antisocial when compared to the city, perhaps the communities are planned, but then what may appear as antisocial to some is just plain privacy to others. Apart from that, there is something intimately appealing about being able to build one's own independent if also small kingdom apart from the milieu of civilization. (After all, isn't the key to American culture the dialectic between civilization and the frontier.)

"Revolutionary Road" is no exception to the self-justifying slag pile which is the genre of antisuburban art. The movie clearly hates suburbia, but it is difficult to articulate why. Is suburbia merely an artifice to keep the machine of society running? You wouldn't guess it, had you the free Wheelers as neighbors. They seem to make no reservations about ripping one another apart. (Though, given the acting in this film, you might think that suburbia was a bit hammy if you visisted the neighborhood.)

Apparently the Wheelers, like so many other (fictional) bored suburban couples before them thought that they might actually make a difference in the world (and were fortunate enough not to live by their desire for recognition--who knows how many people have let their children starve to death from neglect in some of those bohemian-style art colonies.) The real problem was that they just couldn't shake it off; if not, their lives might have been happy, or at least more peaceful. After all, isn't that what artifice is for?

After having written in this, I should acknowledge that I can't speak with any degree of authority as to whether suburbia is or is not miserable. I lived as un-suburban a life as anyone in a small town could live. My parents were not particularly radical, but there was no more radical place in the state of Idaho than that street on which I grew up: Elm Street, fraternity row, in a house across the street from a brown-stone fraternity, juxtaposing a Southern revival TriDelt sorority and a graduate student apartment complex. Maybe this is the reason why suburbia has always had an appeal--I have never desired to live in suburbia, but there are aspects of it which I admire. However fraudulent it may be, there's no establishment which is much realer and it is much realer than some.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why I Am Not an Agrarian

This paragraph is taken somewhat out of context, but I think that it's a pretty good summation of my uneasiness with traditional (i.e. paleo-, though this term is a bit impolite) conservatism:

There’s always been something unrealistically romantic about too much emphasis on place and memory in America. Not so far from where I live there was a town -- Cassville, GA -- that, by 1860, was extremely well settled, had several serious institutions of learning, and certain sorts of aristocratic traditions that are still remembered by those who care about that stuff. It wasn’t even there until 1840 -- it was founded in the wake of the pretty anti-communitarian Cherokee removal that’s part of our wonderful southern heritage -- and it was devastated by the Civil War. Community came and went with almost blinding speed, as it has done often in our country’s history. (Consider also, if you want, how quickly the Cherokees transformed themselves into good [slaveholding sometimes], agrarian Americans, with their really deep traditions both adapting and sometimes disappearing.)

Peter Lawler, Postmodern Conservative
This is not to say that I completely object to the agrarian ideals of place, belonging, connection, but it is a telling fact that most of the famous agrarians did not choose this life, even when they could have done so--Wendell Berry, for instance, is a farmer and lives off the land, but he does not have to depend on the land for his sustenance. (And neither did his father, from whom he inherited the land.) But Wendell Berry is the closest that individuals come to living up to their ideals. Many other agrarian idealists are professors, writers, doctors, etc. Men who farm as a hobby. Or not at all.

I would say it is inappropriate to be unfairly judgmental. After all, men like these are necessary for the message of agrarianism to reach the people. But most farmers I have met are hardly distinguishable from the rest of us, once they cross the city's boarders, and it is moments when I meet the real farmer they I begin to suspect that agrarianism is a romantic notion which distracts us from the crooked timber of . . . reality.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where Are We Headed?

Conservatives thought that when the nation elected Barack Obama it was the final surrender to the New Left ethos that emerged during the 1960s. But what if we are seeing the re-institutionalization of liberalism instead? What if--because of a decline in religious practice--people instead begin to adopt the Kantian ideology of duty-for-duty's sake? What if we are seeing a retread of Victorianism (though it be altered by history)?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Whitman and America

I wanted to put out a few thoughts on Walt Whitman which will, hopefully, give way to a more expansive post on the subject.

For years, I had no idea precisely how to characterize my feelings about Whitman. In high school, I always disliked his verse and I ignored it for most of my college years; it was not until the end of my sophomore year and the beginning of my junior year that I read him again and, based on this second look, began to see what it was the people see in him.

There is still not a single line of Whitman's poetry which I find to be particularly memorable--with the exception of a few lines perhaps from his contemplations on "The Learned Astronomer" or "O Captain, my Captain". Nonetheless, while Whitman is not the greatest of American poets, he is certainly the most American of great poets. No poet in the American canon captures the spiritual biography of the union--before, during and after the Civil War--with the verve and feeling of Walt Whitman.

From Whitman, one gets the sense of the young optimist looking out upon an illimitable frontier, the soldier whose only music is the drum and the fief, the mourner who can only find meaning in General Sherman's phrase--both cynical and poignant--that "War is hell", the elder bard seeking redemption through the creeds and incantations that his younger heart once found to be so much foolishness.

Who can not read Whitman's work without thinking that this is not only the work of a man, but also a nation?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Congratulations Graduates (Again)!

I went to the UI graduation ceremony earlier this morning. Of course, I'm proud of all of the graduates who I have known as friends and had as classmates or students at one point or another, and, since no one really reads this blog, I say specifically that some of them have names that rhyme with Joe Roberts, Will Rannals, Jenna Leeds, Jordan Greene, Lauren McConnell and Brian Fletcher. As for the ceremony itself, I thought that Congressman Minnick's speech was a little bit dull and sounded somewhat like it was read by a Kindle, but at the very least there was no "Little you, Big you!" Anyway, congratulations to everyone moving on to bigger and better things and best wishes from the Jungle Cat.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Torture

I hadn't planned on posting for a few days, but then the memos of the past administration's torture practices were released. What can one say but disgusting, simply disgusting. If Republicans want to save themselves from themselves and hope to mention Cuba's sorry record on "human rights" without being laughed out of the room, then they might begin by publicly denouncing not only these policies, but also the people who implemented them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Agrarianism, the Suburbs and Political Incorrectness in Movies

I recently finished a book entitled "God, Man and Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ" written by Mark Roger Winchell. It makes an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone who likes movies (though I must say that I wish he had devoted more time to the technical aspects of movie-making. One can read the entire book without encountering phrases like auteur and mise en scene.)

However, for anyone who does choose to read the book, there are a few deeper criticisms which are worth considering. Much of the book is devoted to movies that celebrate Southern Agrarianism (or at least localism) as opposed to an implied cosmopolitan North. Some of the movies in this category which Winchell praises are Intruder in the Dust, Gone with the Wind, The Trip to Bountiful and Gods and Generals. I have nothing against the Southern localism or paleoconservative Herderian sense of belonging that Winchell promotes in the book; the problem is (I think) that no one else objects to the localism either; only the nastiness with which the localism has been occasionally associated (i.e. segretation, disenfranchisement, lynching, etc.).

Winchell clearly--and rightly, I would say--does not want to defend this nastiness, but since the nastiness comprises the politically incorrect attributes of Southern localism, the title of the book seems somewhat redundant. It is true that there are far too many academics and cosmopolitans who unfairly dismiss localism as xenophobic and either wish to toss it in the dustbin of history or allowing it to remain as a curiosity, rather than actually engaging with it critically (and with a healthy degree of self-criticism). Even so, the agrarianism of the Amish is not politically incorrect; just quaint.

A really politically incorrect film would not be one promoting agrarian life, but rather one that emphasized the positive aspects of suburban existence. The suburbs have been lambasted in almost every movie that ever dealt with them--The Man in the Gray Flannel Suite, The Graduate, American Beauty, Revolutionary Road--but, seriously, what other arrangement allows people to engage in modern society while still providing them with badly needed privacy? If you want to watch something politically incorrect, watch Little Children; now there was a politically incorrect movie.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I seriously doubt that this story is true, but if it is no one could have imagined a better parody of the rise of the age of the "accounts, economists and sophisters":

Obama's Gift to the Queen [Jonah Goldberg]

This just in:

Diplomatic jaws dropped across the continent yesterday when it was revealed that U.S. President Barack Obama had, once again, fumbled a routine protocal of international statecraft: finding the right gift for a foreign leader or head of state. In a private ceremony with Queen Elizabeth, Her Royal Highness bequeathed to the Obamas one of the earliest known copies of William Shakespeare's Henry V. She also presented him with the framed orginal sheet music of John Newton's "Amazing Grace." To the Obama daughters, the Queen gave a dollhouse-sized replica of Windsor Castle with a functioning train station in the year of the compound. They also received a prize Shetland pony. Mrs. Obama was given a ruby ring commissioned and worn by Queen Victoria.

The Obamas, unfortunately, did not seem prepared for the occasion despite the row set off by the exchange of gifts between Prime Minister Brown and the U.S. President barely a month ago. Mr. Obama rather unceremoniously handed the Queen a shopping bag from the Duty Free shop at Heathrow airport. It contained a signed paperback copy of Dreams of My Father, purchased at the WH Smith shop at the airport, a bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch (black label), a CD of the Swedish band ABBA's greatest hits (still in shrink wrap with a 2-for-1 sticker on it) and ten bags of M&Ms with the presidential seal on them.

The Queen responded in a rather flat: "How delightful."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

From Individual Conscience to Tax Boycotts

The vast majority of people pay for social programs and public policies to which they object, and, while most objections are raised for pragmatic reasons, taxes also support programs and policies which many people object to in good conscience (e.g. regime change in Iraq, sex education, even public schooling). This is problematical in any society in which freedom of conscience is an assumed--if also unwritten--precept, but a simple boycott on these taxes is no resolution to the issue.

More than half of the America people have adopted the position that the War in Iraq was a mistake. (Admittedly, more than half supported the war in 2003, but this still makes for tens of millions of citizens who would have preferred avoiding a war fought under the circumstances and principles which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq.) Still, if those who opposed the war in Iraq claim that, because of their position on the war, they should be free to maintain their freedom of conscience by withholding taxes, this may very well introduce an inconvenient precedent: if opposition to one war is reason enough for some citizens to withhold federal taxes, then opposition to any war could be reason enough for other citizens to withhold a similar portion of their income. While this may seem reasonable in the case of Iraq, examples grow more extreme: Should it have applied to former members of the German American Federation, or what about the Copperheads and their supporters? Maybe. But, if nothing else, it is fair to say that cases exist in which this form of dissent would not only be contrary to national interest, but also national survival.

Furthermore, because conscience is held privately and its content is unknown to all but the individual who possesses it, allowing for a conscience-driven boycott on taxes also opens an unintended loop-hole for citizens who merely want to pay lower taxes: While they may or may not oppose a particular war, they know that they oppose their marginal tax rate and, based on this, make their conscience a handmaiden of their financial desires. Many would sincerely wish to withhold taxes in good conscience; the problem is that there is no empirical way of differentiating the sincere from the scoundrels.

This has covered the pragmatic dimension of the issue, but theoretical reasons also exist for opposing tax-boycotts as a form of dissent: any political nation (as opposed to a natural nation with common language and culture but no governing body) is in some way responsible for assigning roles, either through allowance (in which case citizens find their natural positions) or draft (in which case citizens are assigned their positions, natural or otherwise). Generally, the purpose of government is to allow citizens to live in an environment in which they do not have to struggle to maintain their life, liberty and property, but, for this to work in a nation which is larger than an organic community, procedures are necessary for effective government.

American political procedure calls for the executive branch to wage and manage war and the legislative branch to approve or disapprove the declaration of war as well as the funding for duration of it. But both branches of government are elected; in a sense, government of the people, by the people, for the people is still reflected in national procedure, though these procedures are debatably muddled by contemporary forms of media or education. As such, individual opinion is best expressed through the ballot box, rather than through the absence of tax payments. There is no need to conduct a passive revolution because the people are capable of conducting and active (though peaceful) one every two years.

Naturally, this argument assumes that the individual's actions--in a political context--should be subordinate to the will of the community (elections express semi-general will, not individual will), so it is worth inquiring into whether or not this is a valid assumption. Indeed, one may be a crowd, but the very notion of a society--as opposed to a community--is based upon solidarity and cooperation. Government may be meant to insure rights (as was indicated before) but it also exists to curtail the arbitrary freedom or license of the powerful or malevolent (if nothing else, it is nice to know that, if someone sets fire to your house, the fire brigade will show up). Since all benefit from the government performing this task, it is just that all who benefit from the performance help sustain it. The option does remain of going into physical exile (i.e. going abroad) or civic exile (i.e. moving to an American Indian reservation or an Amish community); this is to say that, while boycotting taxes is not an ethical civic option, individual citizens are not exonerated from the moral implications of civic action. It is simply that the morality of the question gives rise to other (more difficult but also more pointed) moral choices.

I realize that I have not devoted much space to the moral side of the question. What, for instance, is it that allows the Amish to refrain from paying taxes to causes that they consider to be unjust whereas a Methodist may also oppose the Iraq War but still has to pay to finance it? One of the reasons was already indicated: the Amish community does not sit under the government's aegis in the same capacity as do other opponents of the war. But also categorical imperative needs to be taken into consideration when the government determines who is or is not exempt. A Methodist or a Catholic may believe that a particular war is inconsistent with his beliefs, but to justify boycotting his taxes, he has to be sure. The only mode of assurance is to articulate an hermeneutic by which it is not only possible to judge the Iraq War as unjust but by which it is also possible to judge every war--or at least every war of a clearly identifiable category--as unjust.

Theories of ius ad bellum would seem to help in these circumstances, but they often only add two additional levels of complexity; first, because the theory needs to be interpreted (always a controversial matter) and, second, because the universal theory then needs to be applied to a particular context. This latter task becomes particularly difficult in a case like that of the War in Iraq: No one can really agree on whether the purpose of the war was to destroy Iraq's WMD program (which turned out not to exist) or to make the Middle East safe for democracy. Unless an individual is willing to accept total pacifism, his rationalizations will almost inevitably devolve into opinion rather than irrefutable fact.

As is indicated by the above argument, there are cases in which boycotting taxes is an appropriate action (i.e. when not doing so would perpetuate action which was in direct violation of a moral absolute), but individual conscience is only the first criterion for a boycott. In other words, individual conscience can only take precedence over an action judged necessary when both an individual and the society can agree that the individual's views on a particular issue on incontrovertible; opinion, however strong, is not good enough.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taken: Review

No doubt, somewhere along the line, in an interview in one of the few remaining magazines that millions of people still read, Pierre Morel might claim that "Taken" is meant to promote awareness about the ongoing underground human trafficking problem in the ghettos of Western European nations. Maybe. But the movie is actually about American machismo unchained. It is a welcome tribute also (especially considering that the film is French-produced and French-directed).

For a foreign film, it does seem extremely American: The primary language of the movie is English and the Bryan Mills, the film's hero, is undoubtedly an American citizen (though he is played with remarkable fluency by the Irish actor Liam Neeson). The pace is also not unlike a John Frankenheimer thriller--a shootout followed by a car chase culminating in a knife fight, etc. But, unlike so many parallel American action flicks, the makers of "Taken" have decided to throw political correctness to the wind and have included in the cast of villains not only Americans and Frenchmen but also Albanians and Arabs.

This is no small feat given the current political context and the tepid relations between the United States and France in the recent past. But Morel (and the screenwriter, Luc Besson) manage it by sticking to common Euro-thriller motifs: a kidnapped daughter, a father looking for her and, in the process, winning retribution; this is to say that the story is not particularly original, but there is something about "Taken" which prevents it from feeling like Just Another Action Flick.

Part of this stems from the fact that it is comfortable in that role. The screenwriters do not make the mistake of making Bryan Mills into some sort of washed out cliche seeking redemption in liquor bottles or stitching relations with estranged family members. On the contrary, he appears to have been a reasonably devoted father (though he cannot outspend his main competitor, the dreaded stepfather, played by Xander Berkeley) and about his role in the CIA he does not seem in the least bit apologetic. There are no nightmare sequences about torched Sandanista villages or whatever else a Hollywood screenwriter may have felt obligated to include because the film is only engaged in its present action.

Furthermore, Liam Neeson is a perfect actor for this sort of portrayal. He possesses an authoritative presence which is not available with alternative stars (like, say, George Clooney). One has to venture back to the days of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne to find a character who seemed so unflaggingly superhuman; but Mr. Neeson is also an actor who cannot help but be human even while performing Herculean tasks. The audience is never allowed to forget that he is acting as a father first and a Hobbesian second; this is to say that the film does not provide the quintessential image of American machismo, but still, its hard to think of any movie in the last two decades which has come closer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Mark Sanford, Ron Paul, etc. Will Have to Change If They Want Things To Remain the Same

Daniel Larison had a post arguing that the greatest liability for Sanford in 2012 will be his opposition to the War in Iraq. I think that any campaign mounted by Sanford in 2012 would be rife with liabilities, but I doubt that opposition to Iraq would be one of those liabilities.

Larison notes that, should the War in Iraq go south, the hawkish Republicans will be able to claim that it was Barack Obama's mishandling of the war which led to our failure at nation-building. I don't quite buy into this. It seems to me that, should a reasonably stable autocracy be established in Iraq after the center no longer holds, the Republicans would be glad to forget about the war altogether. If nothing else, they probably won't want to admit defeat (which would be necessary for them to claim that Obama egregiously mishandled the war.)

It is much more likely that Sanford will fail based solely on his inability to square governance with idealism on the national level. Sanford is now being posed as the sane version of Ron Paul (R-Texas) by those extreme libertarians and paleoconservatives who made Paul's 2008 campaign into an event worth paying attention to. But Ron Paul's campaign was. even self-consciously, a reductio ad absurdum. Ron Paul knew from the beginning that he would not be the next president of the United States.

With Sanford, on the other hand, should he run, he will be running to actually be elected, not just to publicize libertarian/traditional conservative ideas. The American people will understand his opposition to the Iraq War. Even now, most of them admit that it was a mistake.

But the libertarian notion that when everyone is trading everyone is happy is a myth. Money may be the primary engine of human activity when it is scare, but, when it is plentiful, people find other issues over which they can fight. And Sanford will have to take a position on issues like this if he intends to become president.

Osama bin Laden, for instance, brought down the World Trade Centers because of the presence of American soldiers in the Middle East; but there were American soldiers in the Middle East in the first place becauze (fundamentally, if not on a case by case basis) we needed to protect our oil interests in the region. Without oil, half of the nation would starve to death. How does libertarian sensibility grasp that?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Classical Education

This is where the miraculous and creepy elements of classical education meet:


Friday, February 27, 2009

Conservative Panic

In the conservative movement, there is an unspoken feeling of panic. The main sign of it is that, with the last national elections, they haven't realized that there might be something else wrong other than they "haven't been conservative enough" (i.e. "libertarian enough"). All they seem interested in is smaller government because "the American people can do anything". But how can the American people do anything if they have leaders who are not willing to lead? The earth cries out for the Republicans to hear them, but apparently the Republicans' radios have broken down. They have offered very few measures (maybe they offered tax-cuts) and no new ones. How can a party survive if the only alternative to "more of the same" they see is in the opposition? The agenda of the latest CPAC conference should serve to confirm this theory, if you aren't ready to accept it yet.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Al Franken has written that Rush Limbaugh is a idiot. When you consider the Limbaugh's following soliloquy (lifted from Allahpundit) you can safely say that Limbaugh is, at the very least, no WFB:

"So, where are we? We as conservatives are in the wilderness, and many of you are hopeless. So we have a guy, Bobby Jindal, 37 years old, first time on the national stage, shows up last night to make a response to The Messiah. All he did was articulate what we believe. All he did was articulate opposition to what Obama is doing, with the obligatory when he’s right, we’ll work with him, just like we worked with Clinton on NAFTA, just like we worked with Clinton on welfare reform after we brought him in. These things happen. It doesn’t mean that we lose our distrust. All Bobby Jindal did was tell us what conservatism is; he used his own life story to do it; he talked about the American people making the country work. He had it all. Now, he may not have done it in the same stylistic way as Obama. I can understand the Democrats trashing the man, just as they trashed Sarah Palin. They are mean-spirited, heartless, horrible winners. But the people on our side are really making a mistake if they go after Bobby Jindal on the basis of style.

Because if you think people on our side, I’m talking to you, those of you who think Jindal was horrible, in fact, I don’t want to hear from you ever again if you think that what Bobby Jindal said was bad or what he said was wrong or not said well, because, folks, style is not going to take our country back. Solid conservatism articulated in a way that’s inspiring and understanding is what’s going to take the country back. Bobby Jindal’s 37 years old. I’ve spoken to him numerous times. He’s brilliant. He’s the real deal. I’m not coming here to defend him, he doesn’t need that. We’re going to have to figure out what we want. Do we want to have somebody in our party who can sound as smart as Obama regardless what he says and convince people to vote for us, or do we believe in a set of principles that defined this country’s founding and will return it to greatness again?"

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What a Horrible Year for Movies

To celebrate a very boring year for movies, Oscar night offered up a very boring and predictable list of winners (yes, yes, I am sure that Slumdog was a perfectly good movie; it's just that I could have said that it would win two months ago). Apparently Sean Penn got another Oscar for Milk, a movie that no one will probably remember in ten years. Kate Winslet won for The Reader a movie people will have forgotten in six months. And then there were a slew of other movies that won awards that I've already forgotten. Heath Ledger, I suppose, won an award for a great performance, but it is somewhat belittled by the fact that it probably would have gone unrecognized were he not dead. As someone said, I don't remember who, making the Best Supporting Actor award into something of a memorial is just a little tasteless. If I had a Jungle Cat Award, it would play out something like this:

Jungle Cat Award for Best Film: Gran Torino
Jungle Cat Award for Best Actor: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Jungle Cat Award for Best Director: Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight

I think that would have been much more inspired than that which was actually offered up, but, what can I say: I suppose that we'll have to wait for a whole new year.

No Pasarais

There has been a lot of talk by people of a more Democratic leaning recently about the possibility of finding common ground on social issues and, in particular, abortion. The Democratic national committee amended their platform, writing that they supported abortion more thoroughly than before, but were willing to consider supporting the freedom of women to choose alternatives. Since then, most of their discussion of abortion--which has, since the 1980s, been a embarrassment for the Democratic Party, though it is unlikely that it will ever again be outlawed--has focused on reducing the number of abortions through the implementation of social programs. They think that pro-lifers should join with them in the "common" cause. Pro-lifers shouldn't.

The entire notion is a stunt by the Democratic Party to have a cake and eat it also. They talk about finding "common ground," but seem perfectly content to be the ones to define which grounds are common and which grounds are off-limits. What they are actually doing is inviting pro-lifers to accept their own terms and lend easy support to programs which have the stated purpose of "reducing the number of abortions". There is not even any concrete evidence that indicates that abortions are reduced by an increase in social programs such as day-care.

The most fundamental problem with their reasoning is that they may want to reduce abortions, but they want to reduce abortions when starting from the maximum number. The notion that abortions decreased because of Bill Clinton's social policies is a myth; it was actually the restrictions of governors--from Bob Casey to Kirk Fordice--during the 1990s that reduced the number of abortions. (Incidentally, the number continued to decrease, largely due to the efforts of a GOP administration during the last eight years.) In their ideal society, the Democrats want the maximum number of abortions to be a possibility, if not the status quo. But when the status quo is not desireable for those who consider themselves pro-life, why should they consider making common ground where it is defined by those who wish to increase the death-toll?

Friday, February 20, 2009

On the Second Bill of Rights

Excerpt from President Roosevelt's January 11, 1944 message to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Union[1]:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

(The highlighted section should be written as "People who are hungry and out of job are what dictatorships are made from." The USSR and Nazi Germany ended up with people who were hungry and out of a job precisely because petty dictators promised them a society in which people would NOT be hungry and out of a job. It is Hobbesianism at its most extreme. Here's hoping that FDR's Second Bill of Rights is never implemented. We're lucky that it wasn't sixty-four years ago.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mainline Protestants? Do They Care about All Things Metaphysical?

Warren has some decisions to make, too. He would do well to apologize for comparing gays to pedophiles, and also for comments to Beliefnet deriding mainline Protestants for not caring much "about redemption, the cross, repentance."
- E. J. Dionne

I haven't decided how I feel about Rick Warren yet, but, from what I can tell, he appears to be a perfectly amiable and faithful Christian gentleman. It is the latter part of this sentence that is of most interest to me (". . . deriding mainline Protestants for not caring much 'about redemption, the cross, repentance'"). Before Reverend Warren apologizes, I think that Mr. Dionne would do well to point to produce a mainline Protestant who does care "about redemption, the cross, repentance"--or at least care more than Archbishop Schorri whose practical prescriptions for Christianity read like a U.N. Charter. (As a matter-of-fact, if Jody Bottum's article [http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6254] is at all accurate, her prescriptions may, in fact, be the U.N. Charter.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I have been reading many culturally (or is it agriculturally) conservative blogs recently expressing agrarian sentiments. While I enjoy working in the ground with my hands as much as the next man, I am no agrarian myself. My tepid view of agrarianism--I say tepid, because I actually think that the farm has some attractive attributes--springs partially from my own experience in farm-hand work, but also because I have a sneaking suspicion that there are very few voices of agrarian sentiment who are actually--or would actually be--farmers.

Today's primary voice of agrarianism, Wendell Berry, does own a farm, and he does appear to actually put a great deal of work into it and eat food which is yielded by the soil. That being said, he is also a teacher and a well-known writer; his father, who was also a farmer, was primarily a lawyer. In other words, the life that Berry has lived has always been immersed in agrarian values, but has never been dependent upon it. And Berry is an exception to mold; most agrarians--from Cleanth Brooks and Donald Davidson to Robert Penn Warren--were academics.

Agrarianism is nothing new (and, by that, I mean it wasn't something that was invented in the 20th century, nor was it created by Jeffersonian democracy when the United States came into being.) It is as old, in fact, as Thomas Wyatt's poem "To My Owne John Poins", if not older. (It is, arguably, even Virgilian.) But the one key factor of agrarianism among all of its propagators is the fact that it is unrealizable. Agrarianism is based on a desire for the past, not enjoyment of the present and, while this might give rise to some good writing, I don't see how, in the long run, it doesn't express the experience that people such as myself had while working in the ground.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Three Cheers for Liberalism!

A Georgetwon professor with whom I am acquainted recently published a blog article questioning the ethics of philosophical liberalism. His article, which is worth reading, can be found at this site: (http://culture11.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/). Here are my two cents in response to it, which I also posted on Culture11:

"At the heart of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity, but only the value that is accorded to them by the estimation of others."

Professor Deneen always has insightful posts, but, in this particular essay, I believe that his ideas are in need of some qualification. First, it seems erroneous to say that "an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity" is "[a]t the heart of modern liberalism" because, while there may be one liberal tradition in Western Civilization, the voices of that tradition are legion and not always in agreement. Prof. Deneen is right to place Hobbes in the liberal tradition, but Hobbes is not an unproblematic liberal, nor is he a mainstream representative of liberalism. Hobbes's liberalism is of a variety that would not have endorsed that great liberal event, the American Revolution, but would rather have endorsed the absolute rule of the English monarchy.

A more representative voice of liberalism is that of John Locke who based his concept of just government on the inherent and transcendent dignity (or at least value) of every individual; in his "Second Treatise of Civil Government" Locke wrote: ". . . no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipresent and infinitely wise Maker--all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business--they are His property, whose workmanship they are, mad to last during His, not one another's pleasure;" (396). It is Locke's "Treatise," not Hobbes's "Leviathan," which serves as the philosophical foundation of America's "Declaration of Independence" on the basis of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

This is not to say that "liberal" societies have not been contemptuous of human life in the past. The French and Russian Revolutions both had abstract liberty as their justification (and the guillotine and gulags as their result). But, again, it is necessary to make a distinction between the principled, systematic liberty of St. Paul, Locke, Burke, Tocqueville and Niebuhr and the abstract, libertarian liberty of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mill.

Furthermore, it should be noted that from a historical point of view societies of principled liberty have been the most respectful of human dignity. There are many societies today which consider themselves liberal, and many of these societies have legalized illiberal practices like abortion, but, while abortion is permitted, it has not been mandated in any of these societies. There have been, on the other hand, illiberal societies, such as Communist China, which have taken it upon themselves to regulate procreation. All of the 20th century's most destructive ideologies have shared a distaste for liberalism, whether they be communist, fascist, or national socialist. (In all fairness, some of the only regimes to take a stand against abortion in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Ceausesu's Romania and the Sandinistas' Nicaragua, have been illiberal regimes, but few conservatives would recommend either of these regimes as models for emulation.)

All of the above are extreme cases, but neither have older cultural or social orders which promoted communitarianism over individualism been much more respectful of human dignity: The Spartan state and the Roman family had no difficulty neglecting or killing children who were born with physical deformations or mental handicaps; neither, from an anthropological point of view, have tribal societies tended to deviate from this pattern.

Liberalism, far from being a modern heresy, is in fact a secular complement to the Judeo-Christian tradition and an outgrowth of its literature. While it did not sprout until the Enlightenment, its seed was planted from when God's people were led out of Egypt. This is not because Judeo-Christian literature propagates individualism--that ideology which underpins the liberal political philosophy--but rather because the literature assumed individualism. The scriptures--from the Exodus, through the writings of the prophets to the Gospels and the Acts--are prolific in the presentation of individuals representing divine will against an established secular order, something not found (or at least not praised) in the classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans. But, it should be noted, that none of these figures was required to advance divine purpose; they could have refused had they been willing to suffer eternal damnation rather than "set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law" (Matt 10:34), but the Gospel was for individuals, not communities and behind this rationalization lies the assumption that the individual's immortal soul is immeasurably more valuable than the community from which he came.

This is not to say that there are not possible abuses bound up in this assumption. Roe vs. Wade--which was both a failure of individualist and communitarian political philosophy--is a case in point. Liberalism is not utopian and does not always offer dogmatic or universal answers, but is probably the best system for governing human nature that has yet been developed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Democrats, Obama Appointees and their Tax Problems

The surprising thing about the Obama nominees who have run into trouble so far is that they are the nominees whom--like the devil--you would least expect. When I first saw Geithner, I thought that this was a guy who wouldn't have a worry in the world during his confirmation hearings. Instead it turned out that he had $35,000 that he had failed to pay to the IRS. When I saw Richardson for the first time--several years ago now--I thought, this is a guy whom I could see being the next president; instead, he dropped out of his candidacy for Secretary of Commerce (who even knew that such a post existed before he failed to get it) after it turned out that he was involved with some shady contracting. Then there was the case of Tom Daschle. No one--and I mean no one--would have guessed that someone who had, in a past life, qualified to serve as minority leader would have forgotten to pay $100,000--enough to buy five Detroit cars--to the federal government. If the Democratic Party pays its taxes as well as its leadership does (and this is the leadership that includes, by the way, Ways and Means chairman Charlie Rangel) then this country is in grave danger from a fiscal standpoint.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Winston Churchill? Last Burkean?

I have returned from California. Of course, the weather there was outstanding as it always is. So was the very Californian spirit. More on this later (hopefully).

One of the things that I did take away from the conferences was that Winston Churchill was the last true Burkean political leader. This isn't to say that we have not had political leaders who were devoted to principle rather than any particular policy and who were willing to adapt and reform while at the same time acknowledging the significance of a particular cultural context--John McCain and Daniel Patrick Moynihan come to mind--but Winston Churchill was the last Burkean to actually hold any significant political clout and possess the ability to lead not just a minority but rather the majority of his nation in the same direction. One doesn't see that anymore. Of course, based on the recent elections, the people seem perfectly contented with the rule of the sophisters, calculators and economists, which is not the same as saying that they should be.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Libertarianism Is Not Useful as an Ideology

A friend in Moscow asked/begged me to post while I was in California, and, thanks to my grandfather and his computer, I have found myself able to do so. It was a capital ISI conference, by the way. I met many bright students from all parts of the country, including Washington (both the state and district), California, Michigan and Connecticut. Most of them had moments during the conference that were much better than mine, but, given that I have less to expound upon on their comments, I want to comment on one that I made during one of our sessions.

During the session--which was on the relationship between libertarianism and conservatism--I said that libertarianism may have more sex appeal than conservatism (because it claims to be an ideology whereas conservatism is an anti-ideology), but, nonetheless, it is not useful when it is at its most ideological.

Hopefully, I will expound on this when I get back to my home turf, but the main problem with libertarianism is that, since it is an ideology based upon breaking down bariers rather than setting them up, it is incapable of articulating precisely what boundaries are necessary and why. They speak, for instance, of the harm principle or the necessity of government to maintain civic order so that citizens can not only enjoy but also practice their freedom. These ideas are all consistent with libertarianism, but they are not implied in libertarianism's central tenents (placing the highest premium on freedom in civic society). This borrowed precept creates a crack in the wall, I believe, that causes the entire edifice to collapse.

Because it has to admit that some social, political or cultural solidarity is necessary for any individual to practice his freedom beyond the freedom which brute nature affords, the libertarian is forced to borrow one leg of his philosophy from either conservatism or progressivism. Other than this, he has the abstraction of liberty, but this is not something that a conservative or progressive will spurn or distain. Libertarian freedom is a subjective freedom (meaning, in this case, it is based on what a somewhat patholigal or idiosyncratic group believes it to be.)

This doesn't mean that libertarianism is useless; it provides many incites into education reform, equity in jurisprudence and a more humble foreign policy, but it is only useful in so far it is like that which Michael Oakshott called conservatism: not an ideology but a disposition.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why I Won't Be Posting for Awhile

I realize that I have not been posting recently and I will not be posting for another couple of weeks. The reason is because I have two conferences in SD, CA next week, and, therefore, will have difficulty making it to a computer. Anyway, stay tuned, because I'll have more to say in late January. Good night, good luck and God bless.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Sorrows of the Education System

This is a good article about having to be the hatchet-man for democracy:


On Giving: No, Not a Review of Bill Clinton's New Book

Nicholas Kristof writes that studies indicate that people of a more conservative disposition tend to give more to charity than those who live in Blue States. But Kristof qualifies this by writing that gays are one of the most charitable demographics in society (though he does point out that this might be because they are less likely to have children and therefore have more to give.) What I want to focus on is the implications of the bracketed information.

Charity is generally defined--in this day and age--as noble spending or, otherwise, spending which contributes to the common good, rather than merely sating the hedonism of one consuming individual. Generally, I accept this definition, but I think that society applies it too liberally in some areas and not liberally enough in others.

For instance, as Kristof indicates in his article, many in the moneyed class will contribute to a symphony or maybe a museum. But is this form of giving charity? Is it actually performed to serve society--composed of people--or is it meant to sustain culture--composed of artifacts? Is it the love of human dignity which puts the signature on the check, or is it the love of th dignity of the humanities which does so?

On the other hand, parents spend interminable amounts of money upon their children in areas of education, food, shelter, etc. Even so, this is generally not regarded as charity. I will grant that if charity is defined in the traditional sense as caritas or inspecific love, this is contrary to the very idea of family which is always specific. But still, by the modern definition of charity--i.e. noble spending--this form of spending is clearly more noble than is an investment in the city orchestra.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Public-Works Suggestion

If Barack Obama wants to send a message with his public-works initiative, I would recommend building the Twin Towers in Manhattan just the way that they were before (except, perhaps, with some better hose systems.) That would certainly hit a chord with the terrorists and be a huge morale-booster for Americans.